Sheep production: Through yesteryear into the future

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Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

Sheep farming was part of South Africa’s history long before Jan van Riebeeck arrived in the Cape. As stated by historical records, ships anchoring at the southern tip of Africa bought sheep from the indigenous people to supplement their meat stocks.

According to tradition, the first sheep in South Africa likely came from southern and central Asia, over the centuries migrating from Egypt to the southern tip of Africa. These sheep were claimed to be exceptionally large and, unlike most European breeds, had hair instead of wool. 

Jan van Riebeeck originally bought sheep from the indigenous people. However, because these people moved their sheep further away in winter, Van Riebeeck started encouraging the Dutch farmers to farm their own sheep in a bid to supply the ships with meat.

Read more about black Merino wool here.

In the late 1800s a few Merinos that were donated to the Dutch East India Company by the Spanish government, but which failed to flourish in the Netherlands, were sent to South Africa. This marked the start of the country’s wool production. From the nineteenth century onwards sheep farming gradually spread throughout the country and various breeds were established, including the Dormer and Dorper, among others.

Changing times

Sheep farming in South Africa, despite numerous highlights, has not always kept pace with transformation and change. Five decades ago, sheep producers had large farms and were able to farm sizable numbers of sheep, but as time passed these farms were split into smaller units so that each child could inherit a portion of land. In many cases these farms were no longer an economic unit.

To keep on farming profitably, several plans had to be devised over the years, giving rise to a significant improvement in lambing percentages, improved predation control, and scientifically formulated feed. For sheep producers, however, there are still numerous hurdles to cross over the next decades where production and marketing are concerned.

One of the drivers is the rapidly expanding population. According to well-known agricultural consultant Dr Louis du Pisani, South Africa will have to feed between 70 and 90 million people by 2050. He estimates that animal production will have to increase by 50% by 2030 to meet this demand. To make matters worse, agricultural land and water are bound to decline quite drastically.

“Larger livestock numbers are therefore not an option. Increased production per hectare is the way to go, and can only be achieved with the help of technology within the framework of precision farming,” he says.

Economies of scale

Johan Botha, well-known Prieska producer and businessman, says today’s sheep producers need to do more than merely maintain the status quo. Producers who do not adapt to changing times will eventually miss the bus. He believes the solution lies in economies of scale, which include the expansion of farming enterprises or partnerships between farming enterprises.

Large-scale farm expansions require a considerable amount of capital and financing opportunities are currently limited. Expansion also means more intensive management of the larger units. In Johan’s experience, producers are more inclined to consider partnerships.

By joining forces, aspects such as administration, financing, record-keeping, marketing, maintenance, and the management and control of lambing pens and feedlots can be divided between fellow producers, with the increased production helping each to maximise their profit.

Utilising technology

The sheep producers of the future, says Dr Du Pisani, will have to up their use of technological innovation to take precision farming to the next level. He believes precision farming is no longer merely an option, but a prerequisite for sustainability.

According to him, there are several innovations that need to form part of sheep production. Collecting livestock records using wireless technology is evolving rapidly and can help producers keep their fingers on the pulse of farming.

It won’t be long before veld management turns virtual, he adds. “This technology keeps animals within a predetermined perimeter using wireless electronic devices attached to animals in the flock.” Drones will doubtlessly be used more to count and gather livestock, treat sick animals, locate dead animals, perform routine inspections of water points and the like.

Dr Du Pisani believes that the agricultural training landscape is also changing rapidly. “Webinars and long-distance technology are already well established. Tertiary institutions will increasingly make use of virtual teaching and practical sessions will largely be based on video technology,” he says.

The same applies to genomic selection to identify superior animals. According to him, sheep farming in South Africa has reached the point where producers will have to leave their comfort zones to remain productive, successful and sustainable. – Koos du Pisanie, Stockfarm

For more information, contact Johan Botha on 082 808 4129 or Dr Louis du Pisani on 082 773 9778.